STEUBENVILLE - Steubenville Catholic took the lead with some second-quarter offensive fireworks then held it with solid defense down the stretch as it earned a 59-52 victory against Wheeling Central on Tuesday night.
"A great victory - absolutely," Crusaders coach Sean Tucker said. "When a game is on the line and your five guys can play solid defense and force a team like Wheeling Central to turn the ball over, you know you are accomplishing your goals."
Up by a point (11-10) after the opening quarter, the Crusaders (9-4) extended their advantage to 23-17 when Ryan Fletcher scored off a steal. Following a 3-pointer by Maroon Knight Boyd Bibey, Tucker's crew reeled off six straight.
Tony Barber got things going when he turned a defensive swipe into points. Michael Barber and Matt Martello swished four free throws and Steubenville Catholic held a 29-20 advantage at the break.
After a miserable shooting start - the Crusaders were 4 of 16 during the opening eight minutes - they nailed 6 of 11 second-quarter shots.
Michael Barber's runner in the lane put the hosts ahead 36-25 early in the third. The margin grew to 12 (42-29) when Martello drilled a 3-pointer.
Hoops by Alonzo Manns and David Park pulled Mel Stephens' club to within eight (46-38) heading into the final quarter. Sophomore Chase Harler, held to six first-half points, caught fire for the Knights in the third. He scored 10 of his squad's 16 points.
Harler opened the fourth with five points to make it 46-43. Six straight Fletcher points - his first bucket came following a nifty Michael Manfresca feed - gave the Crusaders a little breathing room at 52-45. Following two Harler makes from the line, Manfresca recorded a steal then assisted on another Fletcher two-pointer. Harler's conventional three-point play made it 55-50 late.
Manfresca and Fletcher knocked four throws to seal the deal for the Crusaders, who dropped a tough 67-60 overtime verdict to the Knights in the finals of Undo's Upper Ohio Valley Tournament back in December.
"These kids know their backs are up against the wall going into OVAC time," Tucker said. "This week is very important to use when it comes to the OVAC playoffs (The Crusaders play host to Steubenville on Friday). We're taking it one game at a time.
"Every single senior stepped up. Our bench played a huge role. We rotated guys extremely well and had guys rested.
Central was number three in this week's OVAC Class AAA standings (the top four teams make the playoffs in each class). The Maroon Knights (6-2) held the top spot in Class 2A.
The Crusaders' defensive pressure forced the visitors into 17 turnovers, 12 coming in the opening half.
"It's always better when your team forces turnovers instead of the other team doing it to you," Tucker added. "We made no extreme adjustments at the half, we just talked to our guys about being in the gaps and being in help defense. They did a fantastic job. Our seniors were just phenomenal and our bench really stepped up."
Fletcher paced the Crusaders with 17 points, 10 coming in the fourth quarter. Martello added 12 and Michael Barber 11.
"Sean does a good job with those guys," Stephens said. "Once they got the lead, we were trying to dig out of a hole. That's hard to do because they do such a good job of running their offense. We basically chased them all night.
"It seemed like every time we were close to making a play, the ball bounced the other way. It was a just a bunch of little things that didn't go our way but a lot of that is to their credit."
Harler took game scoring honors with 30. He scored 24 of his team's 32 second-half points. Park, Manns and Bibey finished with six each.
The Knights were hampered all evening by unforced turnovers, a development that didn't escape Stephens' attention.
"They weren't even pressuring us," he said. "They were all in the half-court stuff. For us to be a good team, that's something we need to get better at. We can't have all those turnovers in our half court sets and not even get a good look."